New Delhi, India – Turkey’s engagement and relationship with South Asia included a combination of economic cooperation, soft power projection, conflict resolution diplomacy, Muslim solidarity policy, protection of oppressed nations, and defense supplies as well as global humanitarian crises and causes.
The wind of Turkish activism is causing many strategic questions in South Asia. What drives Turkey’s interest in India and Pakistan in South Asia? Will Turkey establish itself as a power broker for years to come? How much bandwagoning or counterbalancing among local actors has been generated by Turkey’s rising presence in the region? Balancing refers to “allying with others against prevailing threat” while “bandwagoning” refers to aligning with the source of danger”.
Indeed, these strategic questions have complex dimensions in global system. While ties with Pakistan appear important to Turkey, through its uncritical support to Pakistan’s stance on the Kashmir issue, Turkey has steadily kept sustainable political ground in India, especially since both countries have deepened multidimensional ties with G20 leverage.
A member of NATO and EU candidate Turkey maintains multipolar strategic cooperation with Indonesia and Malaysia in the region. Turkey is likely to remain cautious and sensitive to South Asia’s enduring rivalries and geopolitical faultlines, such as the Kashmir issue, the endgame in Afghanistan, problems of Uyghur Muslims, Rohingya crisis, and now the increasing strategic competition between India and China in South Asia region.
Background and Rationale
Turkey’s special bond with Pakistan goes back to the bipolar global system era, when both were US allies in an apparent bid to contain the Soviet expansionism. The Turkish establishment’s uncritical embrace of Pakistan has been unchanging, irrespective of who dominated Turkey throughout decades.
Turkey established diplomatic ties with India in 1948. However, two factors – Turkey’s pro-Pakistan stance on the Kashmir issue and its membership of the NATO military alliances – seriously hindered Indo-Turkish ties during the bipolar global system period. To put it more bluntly, India, largely viewed through the prism of Pakistan, was never a priority in Turkey’s foreign policy during the bipolar global system era.
Turkey remarked that the deep secular and democratic traditions in India, along with its rich ethnic, religious and linguistic mix, are an example for other countries in Asia. Notwithstanding upward direction in commercial ties, Turkey’s relations with India continue to be marred by critical political issues. In other words, the ‘Pakistan factor’ has prevented India from developing strong and sustainable ties with Turkey.
Turkey’s historically good relations with Pakistan have strengthened over decades. Besides China, Turkey remains one of Pakistan’s most dependable allies, supporting it on the Kashmir issue at all international forums. Recently, Pakistan also avoided being placed on the International Monetary Fund’s Financial Action Task Force blacklist largely because of the uncritical support it received from both Turkey and China. The former has even advocated for the latter’s membership in the Nuclear Supplier Group.
Symbolising Pakistan’s importance in Turkey’s evolving strategic orientation, Pakistan is seriously pursuing a dual citizenship agreement that would allow Pakistani citizens to acquire Turkish nationality and vice versa. This would open immense opportunities for Pakistanis in terms of access to quality healthcare, education and business in Turkey. With the construction of the Turkish consulate in Karachi, Pakistan has the largest Turkish consulate anywhere in the world. Quite early, in the COVID‐19 pandemic, Turkey was one of the first countries to deliver medical supplies to Pakistan.
Turkey’s Defence Ties with Pakistan
Defence ties between Pakistan and Turkey have expanded considerably in recent years. A few years ago, Pakistan awarded the Agosta 90B Submarine Modernization Project to STM, one of Turkey’s leading arms manufacturers. Worth US$350 million, the submarine project is set to strengthen military ties between the two countries.
In 2018, Pakistan Navy commissioned a fleet tanker, which was built in collaboration with the STM in Karachi. Pakistan and Turkey have always stood alongside each other during testing time. Pakistan always feels proud of its friendship with Turkey.
The “excellent relations” between the two countries are constantly moving forward to a much higher level, currently discussing new projects, including serious and dedicated works for midget submarines. There is also significant cooperation between the Pakistan Navy and the Turkish Naval Forces, which also affects military solidarity positively.
Turkey and Pakistan reaffirmed the resolve to further strengthen defense cooperation. Both countries confirmed all avenues of cooperation in military training, education, counter-terrorism, and defense industry cooperation including joint production and procurement.
Both sides shared perspectives on prevailing regional environment including the Middle East, South Asia, and Afghanistan. In July 2018 Pakistan’s navy signed a contract for the acquisition of four MILGEM-class (MILGEM project) ships from Turkey which is the largest single military export deal of Turkey worth $1.5 billion.
Turkey awarded a contract of 52 Super Mushshak trainers to Pakistan Aeronautical Complex in 2017. The memorandum of understanding for the sale of these aircrafts to Turkey was signed in 2016. The Super Mushshak is an upgraded variant of the Saab MFI-17 Supporter. In 2018 itself, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) signed a US$1.5 billion (S$2.04 billion) agreement to sell 30 T129 helicopter gunships to Pakistan.
However, Pakistan has extended the deadline for its supply as the TAI has not been able to secure American export licenses for export deal with Pakistan. Turkey has now tasked TUSAS Engine Industries, TAI’s sister concern, with developing an indigenous engine for the T129.
Kashmir and Other Territorial Disputes
Turkey shares an uneasy relationship with India ever since the latter became independent. Successive governments in Turkey have supported Pakistan on the issue of Kashmir. Despite the best of efforts to overcome their differences with a spirit of mutual give and take, the Indo -Turkish bilateral ties seem to have fractured over decades.
Turkey suggested a “multilateral dialogue” to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Strengthening economic ties with India is Turkey’s primary agenda as the the need to increase bilateral trade to at least US$10 billion (S$13.6 billion). Turkey has long been openly cosying up with Pakistan.
After India abrogated Article 370 of Indian Constitution in early August 2019, scrapping the special provisions for the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Turkey was one of the few countries critical of the move. During their telephonic discussion, Turkey was reported to have promised Pakistan Turkey’s “steadfast support” on the matter.
In September 2019, Turkey told the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (UNGA) that the international community has not paid “enough attention” to the Kashmir conflict, further arguing that “despite the resolutions adopted by the UN Security Council, Kashmir is still besieged and eight million people are stuck in Kashmir.
India criticized Turkey for its caustic remarks on Kashmir during the UNGA session, saying it is an interference in India’s internal affairs and thereby “completely unacceptable.” Part of Turkey’s increasingly vocal support for Pakistan’s position on Kashmir is because of its effort to style itself as the defender of Muslims worldwide.
Against the backdrop of Turkey’s pitch to challenge Saudi Arabia’s dominance and attain Muslim leadership status, Turkey has been reaching out to Indian Muslims as well. Islam is the second-largest religion in India, with 14.2% of the country’s population or approximately 172 million people identifying as adherents of Islam. It makes India the country with the largest Muslim population outside Muslim-majority countries.
Pakistan’s solidarity with Turkey has been strong for decades, as reflected in its support on issues which are sensitive for Turkey. Pakistan’s relationship with Turkey is closely linked with Azerbaijan, which is a mutual ally. The axis of Pakistan – Turkey – Azerbaijan comes at the expense of Armenia; Pakistan is the only country that has not recognized Armenia. In other words, Pakistan’s warm ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey have clearly played a role in its decision not to recognize Armenia. However, Pakistan recognizes Azerbaijan’s claims over Nagorno – Karabakh. In the recent flare up in Nagorno – Karabakh, India did not want Turkey’s involvement beyond the moral support to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan liberated its Nagorno – Karabakh territory from 30 years long Armenian occupation on 10 November 2020.
Middle Eastern Geopolitics
Saudi Arabia’s relations with Turkey and Pakistan are a key determinant in influencing Turkey’s growing tilt towards Pakistan. For many countries in Asia, Turkey is seen neither a Middle Eastern state nor a natural leader of the Muslim world in the same way as Saudi Arabia and Iran have projected themselves. Turkey is geostrategically straddling from South-East Europe to Caucasus in West Asia, and down to North Africa through Eastern Mediterranean.
Still, Turkey’s growing presence in the Middle East, in particular following the Syrian civil war, seems to have created a fait acompli in which Pakistan must also not only balance between Iran and Saudi Arabia but also Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The impunity with which Turkey and Iran are intervening in the internal politics of many Arab countries has led to seismic realignment in Middle Eastern geopolitics, in particular the rush to normalize diplomatic ties with Israel.
While Turkey’s support to the democratic front in Egypt as well as its differences with Saudi Arabia over policies in Libya and Qatar has certainly led to a striking improvement in Turkey - Saudi Arabia ties. Saudi Arabia and its allies restored diplomatic ties with Qatar after three-year rift.
Since Pakistan has enjoyed warm relationship with Saudi Arabia, Saudi Arabia’s growing relations with Turkey has begun to impact Pakistan’s strategic orientation. Pakistan has historically been very friendly with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, due to many factors, including the presence of around four million of its expatriates in the two countries. Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia has also been friendly affected by Saudi Arabia’s softening attitude towards India’s policies in Kashmir.
Pakistan is upset with India’s growing engagement with the Arabic countries, which seems to have blunted traditional Arab support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. Pakistan is against granting India the observer status in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Pakistan, Turkey and Malaysia are the main non-Arab Sunni majority countries which have joined hands with Shiite Iran to counter the so-called Quartet of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt and its influence in the OIC.
This non-Arab alliance is also backed by Russia and China. Russia’s commercial and security interests in the Gulf region have grown significantly in recent years, despite Western sanctions on Russian entities and individuals.
Since Russia cannot compete with the United States either economically or politically, it exploits the multiple weaknesses of Western policies in the Middle East. Therefore, this emerging alliance-like partnership would unquestionably align with Russia’s evident aim of weakening Western partnerships in the Middle East.
On the other hand, China has highlighted Turkey, Iran and Pakistan as the central corridor joining the new land and sea routes that are crucial to realize China’s ambitions. However, what is more important for India is that India’s policies in Kashmir are being challenged by countries which are part of this emerging alliance – Turkey, Malaysia and China.
One of the reasons why Pakistan wants to be involved in a geopolitical grouping whose driving force are Turkey and Iran is to emerge as a bridge between China and the Middle East, besides using it as a convenient tool to pressurize Saudi Arabia to support its Kashmir policies.
The Kuala Lumpur summit in December 2019 stemmed from this very logic. Turkey and Malaysia were the leading lights of this summit which was seen as a counter to the OIC. Pakistan was forced to opt out of the summit at the last moment due to pressure from Saudi Arabia.
Turkey was reported to be sympathetic to Pakistan’s economic compulsions to comply with the Saudi wishes. In August 2020, Pakistan criticized Saudi Arabia when Pakistan called upon the Saudi Arabia to “show leadership” on the Kashmir issue. As Saudi Arabia showed its displeasure, Pakistan swung into action, making an unscheduled visit to Saudi Arabia in order to repair ties with Saudi Arabia.
Since Turkey has been more than willing to oblige Pakistan in raising the Kashmir issue at the UNGA and other forums, the latter has also gone out of its way to bring Pakistan closer to Turkey at the expense of Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan’s neglect of Saudi Arabia, which from a geostrategic perspective is a more logical ally than Turkey, only shows the salience of the Kashmir issue for Pakistan. Pakistan’s alienation with Saudi Arabia is likely to deepen further as the latter gravitates toward India both economically and strategically.
Turkey seems to have sensed Pakistan’s growing disillusionment with the Arabic countries and sees it as an opportunity to cultivate close relations and also to export its model of democratic political Islam in Pakistan. But despite imperious rhetoric on the alleged atrocities on Kashmiri Muslims, Turkey has become more silent on China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority, reflecting an inconsistent but a realist compromise.
Since many Western countries are increasingly viewing India as the only emerging power with the potential to challenge China’s economic and military rise, Turkey’s deepening engagement with China could also easily become another source of mistrust between Turkey and India as well as between the Western democracies and Turkey in the Indo-Pacific region.
Since Pakistan is seen as enjoying enormous leverage over the Afghan-Taliban settlement, Turkey has also supported Pakistan’s bid to play a larger role in Afghanistan once the US troops leave. Turkey has hosted a series of Afghanistan‐related regional conferences, besides asking Pakistan and Afghanistan to resolve their differences peacefully.
The Islamic Factor During the last two decades, Islam has emerged as a very important element in Turkish political system. Turkey’s experiments with an Islam‐based polity have only multiplied over 40 years. Improving strategic and military ties with Pakistan are seen as helping Turkey achieve its grandiose foreign policy ambitions in the Middle East and in many Muslim countries.
The Republic of Turkey is also a continuation of the Turkish Empire over Millenia. Of course, the borders have changed. Forms of political government have changed. But the essence is the same, soul is the same, even many institutions are the same. Turkey is keen that it should channelize its Turkish historical history and culture in order to assert its status as a regional power as well as the ideological leader of the Muslim world. Turkey is one of the most advanced Muslim countries.
At a time when Islam defined politics in the Muslim world, Turkey is projecting itself as a “moderate” Muslim country. However, Turkey is now reinventing itself as the new champion of democratic political Islam. Although the pace of Turkey’s slide toward democratic political Islam may not seem concerning at the moment, Turkey’s determination to realize the Turkish historical glory is certainly a cause for concern for India which has a large Muslim population.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The growing proximity between Pakistan and Turkey, coinciding with India’s skepticism toward Turkey, is going to have unmistakable geopolitical ramifications in South Asia. Turkey has given special focus on cultivating closer ties with Pakistan. With growing strategic chemistry between the two countries, Pakistan and Turkey seem to be well placed to build closer ties in all spheres.
But by voicing Pakistan’s rhetoric on Kashmir, India considers that Turkey has unnecessarily soured its country’s ties with India. The Turkish support for Pakistan’s narrative on the Kashmir issue can be attributed to Turkey’s aim to counter Saudi Arabian influence in the region.
Turkey, in association with Iran and Pakistan, is keen to exploit the rise of China and the reassertion of Russian ambitions, combined with US’ shrinking global role. However, blinded by unrealisable geopolitical ambitions, Turkey mistakenly views China more as a potential facilitator than as a modern coloniser.
Moreover, given the complexity of regional geopolitics and India’s growing regional profile, a sense of resurgent Turkish influence seems a geopolitical illusion. How Turkey evaluates the feedback it receives from its actions vis‐à‐vis India will have important consequences for Turkey’s future policy choices.
Finally, India considers that If Turkey continues to show the least inclination in neutralizing the ‘Pakistan factor’ in its ties with India, policymakers in India will need to respond to a combination of intrinsically linked geopolitical, military and economic challenges emanating from a democratic political Islam agenda.
Unfortunately, despite Turkey’s efforts, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) is not yet recognized by Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Islamic countries, and the Turkish Council countries.